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Closing the Plastic Capacity Gaps: Science-based Actions for Effective Agreements

Amila Abeynayaka (Policy Researcher on Sustainable Consumption and Production at the the IGES) and Simon Høiberg Olsen (Senior Policy Researcher at the IGES) shed light on the limitations faced by countries in Asia and the Pacific in actively monitoring plastics and plastic-related chemicals - hampering the effectiveness of any future legally binding instrument on plastic pollution.

This blog forms part of a series for the ISC on plastic pollution and the Second Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution.

Plastic has played an important role for human development. However, its proper management – especially at the end of its life cycle- has not matched its consumption rate. As a result, plastic pollution has worsened rapidly worldwide with detrimental impacts to humans and nature. This needs to be addressed, and the global community is now convening to hammer out the details of a future agreement on plastic pollution. Regarding implementation, there are several capacity gaps in such a plastics treaty, and bridging these gaps requires a multistakeholder effort. In this regard, the science community plays an important role in contributing to improving data and monitoring capacities ahead of a future plastics treaty.

In the process of establishing an internationally legally binding instrument to curb plastic pollution, the science community is in a dialogue on systems change to address the causes of plastic pollution. Such systems necessarily need to address both supply and demand by combining the reduction of problematic and unnecessary plastic use with a market transformation towards circularity in plastics. This can be achieved by accelerating three key shifts – reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify – and actions to deal with the legacy of plastic pollution”[1]. Understanding the current situation and tracking progress requires monitoring and data across the plastic entire life cycle of plastics. Monitoring and reporting at national and subnational levels are essential for effectively implementing any legally binding instrument to curb future plastic pollution. However, at the moment, several developing countries in Asia and the Pacific face limitations in their ability to monitor and generate plastics and plastic-related chemicals.

Some of these limitations include:

  • Lack of Infrastructure: Many Asian developing countries may lack the necessary infrastructure for comprehensive monitoring and reporting of plastic products throughout the value chain and pollution. This includes limited laboratory facilities, analytical equipment, and trained personnel. Insufficient infrastructure hinders the collection, analysis, and interpretation of monitoring data.[2],[3]
  • Limited Financial Resources: Financial constraints can impede the establishment and maintenance of monitoring and reporting programs. Procuring advanced monitoring equipment, conducting regular sampling, and analyzing samples can be costly. In addition, limited financial resources may restrict the allocation of funds to monitoring and reporting efforts, resulting in inadequate data collection and analysis. These factors adversely affect the availability of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) data.[4],[5]
  • Technical Expertise and Training: There may be limited availability of skilled scientists, technicians, and researchers with expertise in plastic monitoring. To bridge these knowledge gaps, technical knowledge and training programs would be needed to develop standardized methodologies, accurate data interpretation, and effective monitoring strategies.
  • Data Management and Sharing: Effective monitoring and reporting require robust data management systems to store, analyze, and share information. However, many developing countries may lack the infrastructure and procedures for efficient data management. In addition, inadequate data-sharing platforms and protocols may hinder collaboration and the development of comprehensive monitoring programs.
  • Limited Awareness and Education: Public awareness and education about plastic pollution and its impacts may be limited in some developing Asian countries. This can result in a lack of engagement and participation from local communities in monitoring efforts.
  • Regulatory Frameworks: Weak or inadequate regulatory frameworks can hinder the enforcement of policies and regulations related to plastic pollution monitoring. Developing countries may lack comprehensive legislation and enforcement mechanisms, making it challenging to monitor and control the use and disposal of plastics effectively.
  • Scale and Diversity of Plastic Pollution: Asian developing countries often face significant challenges due to the scale and diversity of plastic pollution. Coastal regions, river systems, and densely populated urban areas may be particularly affected. Monitoring such extensive sites and diverse pollution sources requires substantial resources and logistical capabilities.

Addressing these gaps and limitations requires a multi-faceted approach, including capacity building, investment in infrastructure and technology, policy development, and public awareness campaigns. International collaboration, and knowledge sharing, across countries and organizations can also play a crucial role in supporting monitoring efforts in developing Asian countries. In addition, the science community has important potential to effectively contribute to overcoming the above limitations. These roles include the following:

  1. Research and Development on the upstream side of the plastics life cycle: plastics and plastic-related chemicals must be identified and reported throughout the value chain. Even though developing countries are not major plastic producers, they import plastic products and pellets and also import other countries’ plastic waste. In this context data on the plastic products themselves is crucial to ensure the goods’ health, safety, and recyclability. This requires adequate data[6]. Then monitoring the of downstream side (end-of-life stage), more scientific research is needed to better understand the sources, fate, exposure, and effects of plastic pollution and plastic-related chemicals in the environment. The science community can investigate the presence and concentrations of plastic-related chemicals in water bodies, soil, air, and biota. Gaining empirical knowledge of the behaviour and impacts of plastic pollution will be necessary to can inform policy decisions and develop effective monitoring strategies.
  2. Method Development and Adaptation Support: The science community can develop standardized methodologies and protocols for monitoring and reporting plastic and plastic-related chemicals. This includes available sample collection techniques, analytical methods, and quality assurance procedures that must be widely adopted globally. The science community should also consider developing innovative monitoring and reporting technologies and tools, such as sensors and remote sensing techniques to enhance monitoring capabilities in resource-limited settings.
  3. Capacity Building and Training: The science community can play a crucial role in capacity building by providing training and knowledge transfer to local researchers, technicians, and policymakers. This may involve organizing workshops, seminars, and training programs to enhance technical skills related to plastic monitoring and reporting. By building local capacity, scientists can empower local stakeholders to independently conduct monitoring activities, analyze data, and interpret results.
  4. Data Analysis and Interpretation: The science community possesses the necessary capacities for data analysis and interpretation, allowing the monitoring and analysis of data and the generation of fact-based insights. Such activities will be important for identifying trends, hotspots, and patterns of plastic pollution and assessing the risks associated with plastic-related chemicals. The science community can also help policymakers and relevant authorities better understand the significance of monitoring data necessary for informed decisions to mitigate plastic pollution.
  5. Policy Support and Advocacy: The science community can contribute to policy development and advocacy efforts by providing scientific evidence and recommendations. They can actively engage with policymakers, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations to raise awareness about the environmental and health impacts of plastic pollution. By advocating for evidence-based policies and regulations, the science community can contribute to formulating effective strategies to monitor and manage plastic pollution.

In conclusion, the science community has a crucial role in capacity building for monitoring and reporting plastic and plastic-related chemicals in Asian developing countries and beyond. Their expertise in research, method development, capacity building, data analysis, and policy support is essential for addressing the challenges associated with plastic pollution and promoting sustainable solutions, including inputs to science-based policy. The science community’s role will be important in developing a robust global treaty to combat plastic pollution and inform subsequent implementation actions. The recommendations above should be considered before any agreement to ensure that the necessary capacities for effective implementation are in place once a political agreement has been achieved.

[1] UNEP Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy. 

[2] Abeynayaka et al., (2022). Training Needs Assessment Report (TNA): Towards Microplastic Monitoring and Evidence-Based Policy Measures in Sri Lanka.

[3] Kieu Le et al., (2022). Training Needs Assessment Report (TNA): Towards Microplastic Monitoring and Evidence-Based Policy Measures in Vietnam.

[4] Jenkins, Tia, et al. “Current state of microplastic pollution research data: trends in availability and sources of open data.” Frontiers in Environmental Science (2022): 824.

[5] Wilkinson, M. D., Dumontier, M., Aalbersberg, I. J., Appleton, G., Axton, M., Baak, A., et al. (2016). The FAIR Guiding Principles for Scientific Data Management and Stewardship. Sci. Data 3, 160018. doi:10.1038/sdata.2016.18

[6] UNEP Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy. 

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